Stanley Krippner & Jeffrey Kirkwood. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
Besides imagining the uncanny experience itself, what is likely captivating about stigmata, and accounts of most alleged miracles, for that matter, is that they open the possibility of an actual portal to divinity (Harper 1908). Stigmata are a peculiar phenomenon in that they are the most radical confirmation of the uniquely Christian experience and concept of liturgical time, which is “due to the fact that Christianity affirms the historicity of the person of Christ” and “unfolds in ahistorical time sanctified by the incarnation of the son of God” (Eliade 1991, 72). Without the figure of Christ and the rupture in profane time that he represents, stigmata would be nothing more than a morbid aberration, requiring nothing more than a purely physical, and even pathological, examination. However, stigmata occupy a complicated space in our imagination, one that demands empirical as well as mythical/structural investigation. In this chapter, our purpose will be to give a historical and empirical overview of the phenomenon through one purported case, while also looking for its contemporary implications.
This chapter takes two simultaneous vectors of approach to the phenomenon of stigmata. The first is one of causation, rooted in a venture to grasp how such phenomena as stigmata, which seems to resist conventional or naturalistic explanation, can make sense, either as the result of invisible psychological or anomalous forces or the equally hidden movements of deception. The other is an encounter with meaning that finds, in stigmata, a kind of religious language, whose iterations are essential to the viability of spiritual experience. In the former case, our intention is to determine whether one can even take seriously the suggestion that stigmata have ever been more than sophisticated legerdemain or superstition buried in an impenetrable history of repeated references and accounts. In the latter, we try to identify how such an exceptional reenactment of the crucifixion, rather than challenging religious structures, syntagmatically reinforces greater religious belief. This relies on a type of participation that is not merely an evangelical invocation of personal faith as a belief against empirical proof, but the affirmation of a whole history of beliefs that creates a structure and therefore allows such phenomena as alleged miracles to be comprehensible and, moreover, meaningful.
In the case of Amyr Amiden, the Muslim man with whom Stanley Krippner met in Brazil in 1993, and who underwent a number of stigmata-like experiences, the question is again twofold. Was Amiden’s condition genuine, and if so, was it psychogenic, or was it attributable to something beyond ordinary powers of explanation? Assuming that it was more than trickery, the events only achieve significance through access to either a psychological framework or religious history. Satisfaction with a psychogenic explanation implies that while extremely uncommon, the conditions responsible for such phenomena are isolated to the individual case. In other words, there are no eternal verities to divine from the experience, and the events are not connected to a history greater than themselves. Reported miracles, such as nonpsychogenic stigmata, if they occur at all, are just the opposite, in that they create a connection between the single event and an immutable religious truth, or what Eliade (1959) would have called sacred and profane time. The structure of the religious belief gives the incidence of stigmata meaning, and in turn, stigmata reinforce belief in the crucifixion. As Karl Barth (1949, 28) noted,
This decree of God was carried out in time, once for all, in the work and in the word of Jesus Christ, to which Article II of the Confession bears concrete testimony, “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried….” Faith is man’s answer to this historical existence and nature and action of God. Faith has to do with the God who is Himself historical and has fashioned a decree whose goal is history, and has set this history going and completed it.
Stigmata thus function to adduce and create a living Christian history as both temporal and eternal. The belief in stigmata is a belief in the historical Jesus, who believers allege and the gospels claim to have died on the cross.
The notion that Amiden’s case can access the established religious meaning structures that allow us to call it stigmata is problematic in that, strictly speaking, he is not a part of the Christian history, and therefore what his affirmation of Jesus’ suffering might mean is not clear. It could be that in keeping with the global erosion of religious and cultural boundaries, Amiden represents a kind of religious poststructuralism. Or it could likewise be that he falls into an areligious space that merely parodies religious meaning or expresses some more profound forms of spirituality that operate above and outside of the forms of institutional religion.
The History of Evidence: St. Francis to Padre Pio
Stigmata is the plural form of the noun stigma, a term derived from the Greek word for “mark” or “marking.” As a religious phenomenon, it refers to physical markings on, or bleeding from, areas of the body corresponding to the alleged crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ (Kelly et al. 2006). This includes the hands or wrists; feet; the side of the body, where Jesus is supposed to have been wounded by a Roman spear; the back and shoulders, from his carrying of the cross; and the forehead, where Jesus is believed to have worn a mock crown made of thorns. Its importance to religion is that stigmata reproduce the crucifixion in the present and can be seen as evidence of the religious reality created by that original event.
From the sixth century BCE to the fourth century CE, when crucifixion ended in Rome, it was a form of punishment inflicted on captives, criminals, pirates, and troublemakers.1 Berger and Berger (1991, 408) claimed, “It is an enigmatic fact that no manifestations have ever been reported on the bodies of non-Christians.” This makes sense, however, as the significance of Jesus’ death does not reside in crucifixion as a method of punishment, but in the fact that Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God and the ultimate redeemer of humanity. Stigmata only become loaded events by way of reference to this fact, which is the source of all meaning in mainstream Christianity.
Although the first generally accepted instance of stigmata dates back to Francis of Assisi in 1224, Berger and Berger (1991, 408) suggest that they may have informed St. Paul’s address to the Galatians, “I bear on my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal 6:17, Revised Standard Version [RSV]).2 Whether Francis of Assisi was actually the first person to have experienced stigmata, he monopolizes religious and artistic memory of the phenomenon. Since then, there have been some 330 Roman Catholics, and a few Protestants, characterized as stigmatics, among them the German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, the German saint Lidwina of Schiedam, the German mystic Theresa Neumann, and the Italian priest Padre Pio (Berger and Berger 1991, 408; Nickell 2000; Ratnoff 1969).
Thurston notes that the Roman Catholic church takes a cautious position regarding Padre Pio’s stigmata, remaining (1952, 96) “wisely disdainful of abnormal favors of the psychophysical order in which hysterical and other pathological causes, or even fraudulent simulation, may at any time play a part.” The church’s wariness is understandable if one considers the effect of allowing entrance to the power of the Son of God not moderated by the church:
For many, Francis was not simply a model of pious humility, but a dangerously transgressive radical whose direct communion with God seemed to render the Church and its hierarchy superfluous. In receiving the wounds of Christ into his own flesh, he transgressed the boundaries of reason and nature. As the alter Christus (the other Christ), he went where even his closest companions could not follow him. (Kiely 1999, 35)
Nickell (2000) has produced several scenarios by which a person could simulate stigmata, namely, inflicting wounds on one’s body which are hidden with cosmetics until the bleeding is expected to occur, and has even demonstrated one of them himself. As a result, the use of the term stigmatics in this report takes no position as to the etiology of the wounds. The caution of the church may be right, but it does not affect the power over Christian imagination held by St. Francis and some other stigmatics.
Most typically, visible stigmata have consisted of bruises, welts, and bleeding wounds on the hands, wrists, feet, head, back, and sides. Some experients bleed every day; some bleed every Friday or on particular Fridays. Their skin texture varies, from reddened epidermis and blood blisters to wounds that require bandaging. A few stigmatics have had 9 or 10 such marks on their body at once, but most have had less (Murphy 1992, 484). According to the Roman Catholic Church, to qualify as a stigmatic, the wounds need to be accompanied by feelings of ecstasy, or rapture, which, by his own account, Amyr Amiden experienced. Demanding that the wounds be paired with a feeling of ecstasy is the equivalent of demanding that the symbolic event be embedded in the greater history of Christianity—that the single instance be linked to an eternal truth.
These two conditions have been present in a number of relatively recent cases. Marie Rose Ferron, who moved from Canada to Rhode Island in 1925, was bedridden and partially paralyzed for the last decade of her life. In 1926, marks representing the wounds of Christ’s flagellation appeared on her arms; in 1927, stigmata formed on her hands and feet; in 1928, punctures began to bleed on her forehead. She spent much of her time in prayer, and a number of devotees were attracted by her deep spirituality, despite her afflictions (Murphy 1992, 496).
Arthur Otto Moock, a resident of Hamburg, Germany, exhibited wounds on his hands, feet, and side that bled profusely every four weeks or so from 1933 to 1956. Not a Roman Catholic, and not particularly religious, he asked several physicians to cure him, but they had no success (Murphy 1992, 496). This may have been a case of what some observers have described as hysterical stigmata, which appear in highly suggestible people, but without reports of ecstasy and other mystical phenomena.
Some psychoanalysts have provided psychodynamic explanations for these phenomena. For example, the psychiatrist Ernest Hadley (1930) described a patient who bled from his left armpit during at least seven regular monthly cycles. Hadley believed the bleeding represented his patient’s identification with females. This pseudo-menstruation was conjectured to symbolize both a defense against sexual assault and female innocence; his patient had identified the armpit with the vagina since childhood. Lord (1957) added such motives as the desire to avoid menstruation by suffering periodic wounding, an urge to punish oneself for masturbatory impulses, and a longing to identify with a nonsexual lover. Most female experients are stigmatized between the ages of 15 and 50, the years during which women menstruate; stigmata, like periods, are usually cyclical.
In addition to these psychoanalytic explanations, Thurston (1952) believed that stigmata are of hysterical origin, and Wilson (1989) linked them to dissociative identity disorders. The case for the anomalous foundations of stigmata has been made by Summers (1950), while Nickell (1996, 1999, 2000) held they are self-induced. Nickell (1996) and other scoffers have often pointed to the case of Magdelena de la Cruz, who lived from 1487 to 1560. Her religious ecstasies and stigmata impressed the Spanish nobility for years, but eventually, she confessed that they were fraudulent. Maria de la Visitacion, born in 1556, was exposed by a fellow nun, who caught her painting a stigmatic wound onto her hand. Her physicians defended her, but the Inquisition’s examiners scrubbed away her wounds to reveal unblemished flesh (Nickell 1996; Wilson 1989).
Nickell pointed out that a contemporary stigmatic, Katya Rivas from Bolivia, was filmed in her bed where (1999, 61) “the covers provided ample means for concealment of an object that might cut her skin.” He even asserted that Francis of Assisi’s stigmata may have been deceptions motivated by the saint’s zealous imitation of Jesus Christ. However, Francis withheld news of the stigmata, and they were not revealed until after his death. Francis’ confidants, Brother Elias and Brother Leo, attested to their appearance (Murphy 1992, 485), and since the early nineteenth century, many kinds of stigmata have been carefully documented, some by skeptical medical researchers (Murphy 1992, 486).
Kiely (1999) noted that since its inception as a religious concept, stigmata have been a vehicle for doubt. In his study of the appearance of Brother Leo in medieval and renaissance literary and artistic representation, Kiely underscored the notion that Leo was not a simple witness who testified to the reality of the event, but also of a changing representation of general social postures toward miracles, and possibly a symbolic manifestation of the burden of faith. As Kiely framed it, Leo’s relationship with Francis was its own kind of burden, one that did not involve the ecstasy of stigmata, nor the actual experience:
Francis’s “cross” may have been, among others, an extreme literal mindedness (some would call it zeal, others fanaticism) that led him to the agony of becoming an alter Christus. Leo’s cross, more familiar to most of us—his nosiness, his need for proof, his restless conscience, his ambivalence, his spiritual timidity—apparently seemed to Francis heavy enough for one person. (Kiely 1999, 37)
Just as Leo did not serve as an impeccable confirmation of Francis’ stigmata, the prominence of his depiction in works of art, and therefore reception as the bearer of the report’s truth, is not simple. Leo was the “historical and symbolic figure of the flawed witness,” at the center of the interplay between faith and doubt, and, as such, is as important as Francis himself (Kiely 1999, 38).
Louise Lateau and Eva McIsaac
Wilson (1989) has presented two case histories, Louise Lateau and Eva McIsaac, that argue against trickery as the sole explanation of stigmata. Lateau reported ecstatic experiences that accompanied her bleeding from points on her hands, feet, forehead, and side. These manifestations occurred with clockwork regularity every Friday up to her death in 1883 at the age of 33, resulting in a total of roughly 800 occurrences (Wilson 1989; Myers 1903, 493). At the age of 18, the first year in which her stigmata occurred, Lateau visited a physician specializing in so-called nervous disorders, who examined her and observed her condition. According to Wilson (1989, 40), “these scientific tests on Louise Lateau went as far as any at the present time. They indicate that in the case of Louise, at least, something genuinely spontaneous and free from physical contrivance was responsible for her bleedings.”
A more recent case was that of Eva McIsaac, a Canadian housewife. Her wounds included a side wound manifesting and becoming particularly deep and painful. The wounds in her hands penetrated deeper “until they seemed to reach through to her palms, and those in her feet to the soles” (Wilson 1989, 54-55). Eva’s wounds “remained visible but dry and pain-free during the rest of the week, but on Friday evenings between six and nine they flared up with such intensity that some witnesses are said to have fainted” (Wilson 1989, 54-55).
McIsaac freely made herself available for intensive medical examinations. One of these, in 1945, lasted for three weeks; another, in 1946, lasted for two weeks. “Such was the thoroughness and intensity of these that she was not left alone for a single moment day or night” (Wilson, 1989, 55). A Protestant physician, one of McIsaac’s observers, described the scene:
Gradually the hands and the other wounds began to bleed. The wounds on the back bled only a few drops…. The others bled a good deal…. By nine o’clock her face was covered in blood from the head wounds and her hair was matted with it. (Wilson 1989, 56-57)
Wilson concluded (1989, 57), “Here we have a direct attestation of stigmatic wounds manifesting spontaneously under controlled conditions.”
Most cases of stigmata were not subjected to such exhaustive examinations, and the scientific rigor that would satisfy contemporary skeptics did not exist at the time when many of the events transpired. Even granting thorough, unbiased observation and the absence of any intervention by a magician or sleight-of-hand expert, there are many ways to produce the appearance of wounds, ranging from layers of false skin to hidden vials of blood.
Amyr Amiden and the Expanding Vocabulary of Stigmata
Stanley Krippner’s first meeting with the alleged stigmatic Amyr Amiden was on February 17, 1993, when a Brazilian psychologist, Margarida de Carvalho, and Krippner led a tour group of 20 people through Brazil. This trip was sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences and included four days in Brasilia, where they spent an afternoon at the Foundation of the City of Peace. Amiden had agreed to meet with the group, through the invitation of Pierre Weil, director of the foundation.
Amiden told the group that he was born on July 5, 1941, and that he worked as an importer and also as a government workers’ union secretary. At that time, he lived in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil. Of Syrian and Iranian descent, Amiden had been raised in the Muslim faith but claimed to have found inspiration in all religions. A member of the group later wrote,
I was sitting in the lunchroom about four feet behind Amyr at the City of Peace. I heard Dr. Weil say “Here it goes again.” His statement was in response to hearing something drop and bounce inside the room. Shortly thereafter, Stanley Krippner … walked over and retrieved a small polished black stone encased in mud from the floor. I watched with interest as they discussed it. At that moment, no one in our group, except Dr. Krippner, knew that Amyr seemingly manifested apports, i.e., appeared to be able to produce physical objects through mediumistic abilities. Dr. Krippner asked Amyr if he felt that the phenomena happened through the work of some spiritual force or entity operating in him. Dr. Krippner mentioned the name “Christ” in this dialogue. Instantly, Amyr began to bleed from his palms and the backs of his hands. A dark red mark also appeared on his forehead. This phenomenon, called stigmata, allegedly indicates that an individual so heavily identifies with Christ that they express the marks of the crucifixion…. Interestingly, Amyr is a Muslim although he was ecumenical in presenting his beliefs.
Another group member remembered,
After arriving, we were conducted to the restaurant and had an excellent vegetarian lunch. Lunch was almost over and I was standing close to where Stan Krippner and a stranger were sitting. Suddenly, something fell to the ground with a slight noise. It looked like a small piece of mud about 2″ by 1″ by 1″. I paid no attention, but Stan picked it up and found a smooth stone … inside, about 1/2” in diameter…. Whilst talking at lunch with Stan, the conversation with the stranger shifted to Jesus Christ. At this mention of Jesus, red spots appeared on the backs of each hand of the stranger and on the palms. We were invited to look at this manifestation of the stigmata. The stranger was introduced as Amyr Amiden. He is of medium height and has a grey beard. He was born in Brazil into an Islamic family, although all religions are the same to him now.
A third member of the group observed that “it first appeared to be a bruise on both hands, and then blood appeared on both surfaces of the hands and forehead,” a recollection very similar to other members of the group.
Krippner recalled that beet salad had been served at lunch and speculated whether the red fluid that appeared on Amiden’s body could have been beet juice; however, he was reluctant to ask permission to taste the fluid. After asking Amiden’s permission, he invited the group to file past Amiden to observe the phenomenon.
Asked to reflect on an interview with Amiden, a member of the group recounted,
Apparently, his father and grandfather were “sensitive.” … All his siblings were “sensitive,” but only he and his grandfather manifested “apports”—the anomalous appearance of objects with no easily discernible source. Amyr claims he “astral travels” and can travel at will and return with information which can be checked later. He says there have been reports of his bilocation, but he has no control or awareness when this occurs. He has healing abilities and has healed a few lepers in the early stages of their illness but not in later stages. Lights are often seen in his presence when apports occur.
In another among a series of unusual events with Amiden, Pierre Weil passed around a Communion chalice that had been resting on a table in the lecture room. One of the members present averred that “water was in the cup when I held it in the circle.” Another remembered that
several people claim that there was no water in the cup when they inspected it. However, they claim to have smelled blood and to have observed what they took to be dried blood in the chalice, as well as on the fabric that covered the table.
Typically, blood has no discernable smell, so this sensation may have been imaginary or was made on the basis of other contents of the chalice.
Another group member noted that Weil
showed us a chalice that Amyr held shortly before we arrived. What appeared to be blood covered a cross on one side of the chalice. Dr. Weil explained that when Amyr picked up the chalice, the blood exuded from the cross. I picked it up for a closer inspection and, after looking closely at the marks inside and out, I passed it around to the rest of our group. When it returned, created within it were several communion wafers that had not been there when it left my hands. To the best of my knowledge, the chalice was in the hands, or within plain sight, of our group the entire time.
In these accounts, there are two possible discrepancies. One person reported that there was dried blood “in the chalice,” while another recalled blood “on one side of the chalice.” One observer reported the anomalous appearance of “water” in the chalice, but another recalled the appearance of “communion wafers.”
This session with Amiden was neither videotaped nor audiotaped, yet there was a general agreement regarding most of the anomalous events that occurred. There was not, however, a complete consensus about all of the relevant details of the experience.
In the evening after the chalice incident, Amiden accepted an invitation to have dinner at the visiting group’s hotel. On this occasion, one participant audiotaped the conversation, and another videotaped it. The former later recalled,
When the tape picked up the conversation, Amyr was relating an incident that had taken place at this hotel some time before—at the time of the inauguration of [Fernando Collor] the President of Brazil.
At that time, in Amyr’s presence, blood had appeared on a crystal. At that time, someone had inquired as to the significance of this occurrence. Amyr had replied, at the time when the event occurred, that he believed it to be symbolic of the suffering that the Brazilian people would experience. Amyr further related to us that, as if to verify the precognitive impression, the very next day, the people of Brazil had their bank accounts impounded and began to suffer.
Several members of the group had questions for Amiden, whose answers were translated by de Carvalho and are excerpted here:
Questioner: What was the meaning of this blood?
Amiden: I think it was the blood of the Brazilian people…. The ex- president … did a terrible, crazed thing with our money. He held all the money of every Brazilian…. I saw the suffering …. It was bleeding, blood.
Questioner: How did you know this?
Amiden: Whenever I have information about something, I hear a femi-nine voice. I never see her, but it’s a feminine voice that talks to me.
Questioner: This is the process?
Amiden: That’s right. And this feminine voice told me that this whole thing in Brazil is a process of purification for the country.
Questioner: Is it the same feminine voice each time?
Amiden: Yes, it is.
Questioner: Are you conscious when you hear this?
Amiden: Yes, I am conscious. I always follow the voice. It’s always a message for me…. I feed the poor people every 15 days. So I go to a very poor and violent neighborhood every 15 days and make soup for 300 people. And there was a time when the authorities wouldn’t let me do this because they said I was bringing a violent crowd together and that was dangerous. And they said I was bringing criminals and prostitutes to this place. But perhaps one of the prostitutes was my sister in a former life. Yes, it’s very difficult to help people. My father had told me to help feed people because with an empty stomach you can’t hear words of wisdom.
Questioner: What do you do to grow spiritually?
Amiden: I live alone, so I have time to read the Bible, and [I read] about the Muslims and the Jews. They fight so much in the Middle East. But the suffering is for their development.
Questioner: They don’t seem to be learning anything.
Amiden: It’s a process they have to go through.
On the following day, several of the group remarked on Amiden’s wearied appearance, an observation that accorded with Krippner’s notes on Amiden’s episodic experience:
Every month something like this happens…. Before the phenomena occur the saliva tastes acidic…. He drinks much water, strong tea and coffee, loses weight, and takes many baths and showers…. The signs that phenomena would happen started a week ago Wednesday and lasted for 10 days. Blood will come in spots on his legs, then will disappear. He does considerable healing during this time.
Were these anomalous events what parapsychologists would refer to as psi phenomena? Parapsychology is the scientific study of psi phenomena—those interactions between organisms and their environment (including other organisms) that appear to bypass mainstream Western science’s understanding of time, space, and energy. But a particular phenomenon can only be considered psi when it is performed under psi task conditions, those that rule out any ordinary explanation. Hence the events surrounding Amiden on February 17, 1993, were certainly puzzling, even anomalous. But they could not be classified as psi because they occurred under informal conditions that did not rule out alternative explanations. There are many psychic claimants who, on closer inspection, have turned out to be sleight-of-hand specialists.
What remains to investigate is what possible meaning Amiden’s liberal appropriation of culturally and religiously specific vocabulary could mean. By vocabulary, we are referring to the landscape of symbols associated with and, in turn, defining a tradition. So, for instance, the bleeding of the Communion chalice and the appearance of wafers enters the province of religion by way of the Eucharist, which is the symbolic invocation of the Last Supper. In the absence of the Eucharist, the chalice is merely a cup, and the alleged miracle is not more than a convincing instance of conjuring.
Wilson (1989) reported a case similar to Amiden’s in a Dominican nun known as Blessed Helen. She lived in a convent in Hungary and was observed repeatedly by her sister nuns to manifest “wounds in both hands, and in her feet, and her breast was wounded” (Wilson 1989, 21) and in whose presence flowers and other objects were said to have appeared. Needless to say, if a bouquet of flowers were to suddenly appear in the presence of a magician, the phenomenon would be conceptualized as legerdemain. Like Amiden, whose performance included a number of weighted symbols tied to Christianity, the presence of the nun and Helen’s participation in a monastic order can be said to render the events a divine manifestation.
Return to Brasilia
In March 1994, Krippner returned to Brasilia to work with a seven-person team studying the anomalous phenomena occurring in the presence of Amyr Amiden, events over which he claimed to have little conscious control. They spent several hours a day with Amiden, who joined them after work (Krippner et al. 1994).
The settings for their meetings varied, but most of them were in Weil’s office, where they sat in comfortable chairs around a table. Amiden drove to the foundation, was met in the lobby by one or more team members, and was escorted to the office so that there could be no occasion on which Amiden entered the room prior to the session. Several sessions were held in the campus Meditation House; Krippner investigated this site each morning to be sure it contained no unusual objects that could later be labeled “materializations.” When a restaurant was the setting, Amiden entered and left with other group members. From the time that he arrived at the foundation to the time that he departed, Amiden was in the presence of one or more members of the group.
When one or more team members felt that an unusual event had indeed occurred, three members of the team rated each of them on a 5-point Anomaly Observation Scale constructed by Krippner. It ranged from 1 (no apparent anomaly) to 5 (extraordinary degree of apparent anomaly). The mean of each set of ratings was used for comparative purposes; the research design stated that an event would have to have a mean rating of 2.1 or higher to be considered an “apparent anomaly,” a nonordinal number selected to divide events that were felt to be easily understandable from those that were ambiguous or difficult to explain.
For example, four black marks on Weil’s bedroom door were observed by another member of the team; this event was given a mean rating of 1.0 because Weil recalled that a poster had been taped on his door a week earlier. While the group was seated in Weil’s office, a religious medallion appeared to drop onto the floor from the ceiling; this event received a mean rating of 5.0, as did the similar appearance of another medallion a few minutes later. A mean rating of 3.7 was given to a series of static-like blips heard when a radio was tuned between two bands, blips which answered questions given in both Portuguese and English (one blip for yes, two blips for no).
Over a span of eight days, a total of 20 sessions were held with Amiden; using the 5-point evaluation scale, 91 events were judged to have been apparently anomalous, while 6 events failed to meet the predetermined criteria. One of the anomalous events was the appearance of stigmata, which were observed on March 14 and 15.
The field notes Krippner made on those days stated, “Red, blood-like liquid is seen on the front and back of Amiden’s right and left hands.” Ruth Kelson’s notes were similar; this physician’s personal examination of Amiden’s hands convinced her that the fluid was, indeed, blood. Krippner noted a beatific smile on Amiden’s face when he presented his hands to exhibit the markings.
One day, Weil took a metal chalice from his bookcase and began to tell the group how small drops of blood and a Communion wafer had appeared in the chalice under anomalous conditions some months prior to the meeting. On the March 1994 occasion, Amiden asked a member of the group to allow the silver-colored chalice to balance itself on the palm of his hand, while he placed both of his hands at a one-inch to two-inch distance from the top of the object. This took about 15 seconds, at which time Weil asked someone to place the object on the table. Amiden asked everyone to place their hands around the chalice without touching the metal. Amiden placed his own hands at a one-inch to two-inch distance from members whose hands were in closer proximity to the object. This lasted for 15 to 20 seconds, after which time Amiden suggested that everyone remove his or her hands.
Then Amiden placed his hands near the chalice without touching it. Weil picked up the chalice and observed that an oil-like liquid formation had appeared, which had a distinct perfume smell. Then the chalice was passed around so that everyone could see and smell the oil.
The group also had the opportunity to inspect a large photograph of Gandhi that Weil had brought from his bookcase. Weil reported that when Amiden had first seen it, he remarked that the man in the picture had been killed. This statement is not remarkable, given the widespread knowledge of Gandhi’s assassination. However, the following event was quite remarkable; Weil then observed the appearance of two blotches of a blood-like substance on the picture, which were also observed by the group.
The results of these investigations were so provocative that plans were made for a more formal investigation utilizing sophisticated psychophysiological monitoring equipment and the assistance of a Brazilian magician trained in sleight-of-hand effects. Unfortunately, Amiden’s physician, who had observed the complication in Amiden’s cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems following the March 1994 visit, deemed his health unsuitable for additional research purposes.
A Psychophysiological Perspective
Barber (1984, 118), who studied self-regulation of blood flow, introduced an example of how cognition, imagination, and emotions affect blood supply to the genital areas during sexual fantasizing. If these thoughts, images, and feelings can produce variations in blood supply, Barber proposed, it is likely that the blood flow to other parts of the body is continually affected by what people are thinking, imagining, and experiencing. By being deeply absorbed in imagining a physiological change, some individuals can evoke the same thoughts and feelings that are present when an actual physiological change occurs, hence stimulating the cells to produce the desired physiological change.
During the spontaneous disappearance of warts, some investigators (Samek 1931) have reported an inflammatory reaction in the dermis consisting of dilation of blood vessels, hyperemia (increased blood supply), edema, and perivascular infiltration of white blood cells. Hypnotic treatment of so-called fish-skin diseases may involve stimulation of the affected area’s vascular bed, countering its disturbed metabolism (Kidd 1966). Changes in blood supply have also been implicated in rapid recovery from burns (Barber 1984, 87-93). Hypnotized individuals are able to reduce or eliminate bleeding in cases of upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage, and self-hypnosis has been found to be effective in patients with hemophilia (Spiegel and Vermutten 1994, 199-200). In addition, there is an extensive literature on individuals who can shift more blood to a specific area of the skin through biofeedback or other forms of self-regulation (Silverman and McGough 1971; Snyder and Nobel 1968). Murphy (1992, 545) observed that in biofeedback training, there is a transition from the largely dissociative processes that produce hysterical stigmata to a more self-reliant process. Cultivating the self-regulation skills (kinesthetic awareness and deliberate control of autonomic processes) that are basic human capacities, most people can learn to raise or lower their blood pressure, change their brain wave patterns, alter the flow of gastric acid, or modify other physiological functions.
Murphy (1992, 498) noted that the behavior and experiences of mystics are shaped by their respective cultures. Indian yogis, he pointed out, do not exhibit stigmata, nor do Eastern Orthodox monks. However, he also commented that the battle wounds of Mohammed have appeared on devout Islamic men. Interpreting stigmata within a psychophysiological framework suggests that it could occur to members of any faith who somaticize, and who are deeply involved in the crucifixion story (or, in the case of Muslims, in the battles involving Mohammed), given the proper circumstances. For example, in 1972, a young African American Baptist girl living in Oakland, California, manifested the stigmata from the palm of the left hand two to six times daily during a three-week period preceding Easter Sunday. Physiological and psychological tests did not detect serious pathology, and close scrutiny ruled out self-inflicted wounds. Her dreams frequently included biblical events; in the week before her bleeding began, she had read a book and had watched a television movie about the crucifixion (Early and Lifschutz 1974). She and her family professed to be religious, attending a Baptist church near their home; interview data revealed that the girl was preoccupied with Christ’s suffering (Early and Lifschutz 1974, 200). In addition, there are three known Anglican stigmatics (Harrison 1994). Hence stigmatic phenomena are not limited to Roman Catholic adepts.
Spontaneous hemorrhages known as psychogenic purpura occur with no corresponding physical trauma both as a result of hypnosis and unconscious self-suggestion. Purpura refers to a dark, reddened area of the skin. The examiners of the girl in Oakland, California, observed that she had always been in excellent health and had never had a serious illness or accident. They concluded that profound, intense religious and emotional forces could have caused the stigmatic bleeding. Eventually, she also bled from both feet, from her right palm, from her right thorax, and from her forehead. Once the Easter season had passed, there was no recurrence of the stigmata.
One might also place considerable emphasis on the impact of artistic renditions of the crucifixion, almost all of which depict nails driven into the palms of Jesus’ hands. In actuality, nails were probably driven into victims’ wrists, where the bony structure would provide enough support to hold a body on a cross for the time required for death to occur. Even so, nails were not depicted in representations of the crucifixion until the fifth century; the more common Roman practice was to bind the victim to the wood with thongs (Ratnoff 1969).
The historical origin of the phenomenon of stigmata is curiously coincidental with the manufacture of crosses bearing lifelike statues of Christ in his suffering; heretofore, the crosses had been bare. By the thirteenth century, the Christ who hung on a cross was drenched in red blood, and in the same century, Christian mystics began to experience the stigmata (Panati 1996, 123, 512). By the same token, stigmatic wounds in the wrists have become more common since media coverage has cast doubt on the historical veracity of palm wounds (Nickell 2000).
In addition, the experient’s chest wound typically has been found to match the location portrayed in the local church; the wounds of one woman matched in position and size those shown on the crucifix before which she prayed (Thurston 1952). The Y-shaped cross on the breast of Anne Emmerich resembled a prominent cross before which she had prayed as a child (Murphy 1992, 501-2). These observations lend more forceful support to the explanation of stigmata as self-inflicted injuries or a psychogenic origin to bleeding than any type of purported supernatural intervention.
Hypnotically Suggested Stigmata
The work of a German physician, Alfred Lechler (1933), supports this perspective. Lechler experimentally induced bleeding stigmata by hypnotic suggestions in a 29-year-old peasant woman who demonstrated high hypnotic susceptibility. Somewhat earlier, she had seen a film about Christ’s crucifixion that left her with pains in her hands and feet. Lecher hypnotized the woman and suggested that she had been pierced by nails in the manner of the crucifixion. After several sessions, the peasant woman produced the markings of a crown of thorns on her forehead, an inflamed shoulder condition related to her imaginary carrying of the cross, and bloody tears similar to those shed by the celebrated mystic Theresa Neumann. Lechler photographed these manifestations (Lechler 1933). The crown of thorns was not a customary part of Roman crucifixion practices, and if the account is accurate, it might have been produced for Jesus, mocking his appellation as “King of the Jews.”
The woman responded that she could feel the nails being driven into her hands and feet. Lechler and at least one nurse carefully observed her prior to, during, and after she received the suggestions. Wilson (1989, 97) comments,
The significance of all this is profound. Effectively, Lechler can be said to have established more authoritatively than anyone, before or since, that spontaneous bleedings of the type attributed to stigmatics during the last seven centuries really do happen, and that these can be demonstrated under properly controlled conditions. He can also be said to have established that a fundamental key to the phenomena is hypnosis, and that the stigmatic, even without having been formally hypnotized seems to be, during his or her bleedings, in a mental and physical state effectively indistinguishable from hypnosis.
Wilson (1989, 126) continues,
A really riveting feature is the extraordinary precision of the mechanism’s conformity to the visualization that triggered it. Stigmata have been precisely positioned to conform with the wounds of a stigmatic’s favorite crucifix. Or a wound may have taken on an exact shape such as a cross. Most dramatic of all, the mechanism seems able to mould the flesh into a feature resembling the head and bent-over point of an iron nail. It is as if something within the body has re-programmed it into a new form.
Psychogenic and Post-traumatic Bleeding
Reports of psychogenic bleeding, wounds that are linked to psychological reactions to accidents or surgery, support this perspective. When psychogenic bleeding has been recorded, the principal manifestation has been ecchymosis, rather than bleeding through the skin. A study of 27 cases of psychogenic bleeding at Case Western Reserve University observed that all cases were in women, that the bleeding began after injury or surgery, and that the attendant bruises were different from those brought on by trauma. However, among the 27 cases, there was frequent mention of headaches, seizures, cutaneous anesthesia, transient parethesias, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pains, and hyperventilation. Several women had a history of childhood or recent trauma (Ratnoff and Agle 1968), and a larger number had been bedridden for long periods of time (Nickell 2000).
Following such traumas as automobile accidents, there can be syndromes of spontaneous bleeding from body orifices as well as internal bleeding and painful spontaneous ecchymosis (passage of blood from ruptured blood vessels into skin tissue), often several months after the trauma. Gardner and Diamond (1955) have hypothesized that these individuals become sensitive to their own extravasated blood (i.e., blood that has flowed into surrounding tissues) at the time of the accident, and bleeding then occurred later due to internal sensitization. This posttraumatic syndrome appears to be more common among women than men.
In cutaneous anesthesia, there is no sense of touch in the skin; a severe diabetic who has no circulation in the toes will cut the toe but feel no pain. Transient parethesias (i.e., impaired skin sensations) are brief, episodic prickly sensations; sciatica can produce them as well.
The Structural Approach To Stigmata
The cases just described are helpful etiologically, but the bleeding was not interpreted as sacred or as stigmata. Cases that are studied as stigmata share four commonalities according to Lord (1957) and Ratnoff (1969):
- The stigmatic has a history of somatization (see Wickramasekera 1995).
- The stigmatic demonstrates a high degree of identification with a religious figure.
- The bleeding occurs periodically during times of high affect.
- There is considerable secondary gain derived from the stigmata.
All four of these commonalties (Lord 1957; Ratnoff 1969) can be said to have characterized Amyr Amiden. He had a history of somatic complaints. He demonstrated a high degree of identification with Jesus Christ and other religious figures. The bleeding occurred when he was deeply moved by a social situation or conversation. And as a result of the stigmata, he received attention and praise from a group of his supporters as well as from inquisitive outsiders.
Even so, Krippner and his team (1996) could not draw a definite conclusion as to whether this claimant’s stigmata were parapsychological, of somatic origin, or the result of highly sophisticated legerdemain—much less anything that could be considered miraculous. Indeed, this claimant’s phenomena are typical of the problems that exist in this area of study. Amiden’s cancellation of a follow-up session, with a Brazilian magician present, could have been due to health problems, as alleged. Or it could have been motivated by a fear of exposure by an expert in sleight-of-hand effects. However, it provided Krippner and his associates an opportunity to survey the pertinent literature and to propose mechanisms that would lead to a naturalistic (rather than a supernatural) explanation of stigmata.
These four commonalities provide formal criteria for what may already be an intuition, namely, that certain activities qualify as stigmata and others do not. The impulse to establish criteria rests with the expectation that stigmata convey, or at least adduce, something in a fixed tradition. For stigmata, it is the most profound truth in Christian mythology. The internal/external distinction of stigmata is not so much a problem of verification, but of a type of semantics that guides our understanding of it. And “we must remind ourselves that, for Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning—the Redemption” (Eliade 1991, 143). In the same way, stigmata have a meaning because they are identifiable as the reincarnation of the historical event that organizes the religion. The crucifixion confers on stigmata a meaning that unifies the whole Christian historical community and operates like a grammatical force for determining what is and is not correct.
In his analysis of the Sandwich Islands and the sacrificial rituals that infamously claimed the life of Captain Cook, Marshall Sahlins (2004, 16) remarked,
The genealogical tradition provides an invariant frame for all of these permutations, articulating the latest of the human heroes with the greatest of the gods—and allowing the possibility that the latter will reappear in the persons of the former.
What is important here is that the religious structures that prevail over the course of history allow the islanders to transform a man or woman of the present into an eternal figure and therefore confirm now what the myth invariably proves true. In Christianity, as stated before, faith is not a blind spot in reason, nor a grave leap into the impossible, as much as it is a willingness to recognize and participate in the historicity of Christ as a figure who inaugurated the time of redemption. The empirical likeness of a stigmatic to Jesus as a mythological figure is not as crucial as his or her situation in the history that allows for faith. Even the stigmata or ecstatic visions themselves must, as de Certeau notes, be relativized as “signs that would become a mirage if one were to stop there” (Brammer 1992, 29). The wounds only become stigmata by being expressible in the paradigmatic Christian language of the crucifixion that “radically historicize[s] each moment” (Brammer 1992, 35). In turn, the halo of scientific uncertainties surrounding Amiden’s case misses some more essential difficulties about how his experience could possibly be comprehended as an embedded sign employing a religious grammar.
It appears as if Amiden’s case straddles the line between being meaningful and simply fascinating. We immediately recognize in his wounds and the presence of Christian artifacts a wealth of explicit references to a long history of Christian experience that is not limited to Christ, but also includes medieval mysticism and the Eucharist. Amiden’s own deep identification with the figure of Jesus offers a foundation for interpreting the events and leads us to speculate that it is an instance of stigmata. However, if we view stigmata as a structural device defining a narrow space in the history of Christianity, it is hard to know what it would mean at a deeper, more profound level.
Unlike Sahlins, who treats ritual paradigms as “invariant,” it is possible, and even obvious, that the structures that confer meaning on an event evolve. Otherwise, the Roman Catholic Church’s initial resistance to the Franciscan order would have left stigmata forever beyond the margins of the Christian faith. Instead, subtle variations in the manifestation of stigmata have the cumulative effect of altering its conceptual boundaries. But this does not occur so abruptly as to explode the structure altogether, which is how we can still comfortably refer to such phenomena as the four commonalities. What is missing in the manifestations of Amiden is a unitary framework to make them comprehensible. Is he channeling the suffering of the Brazilian people as a Christ-like conduit? Or does he represent the convergence of monotheistic religions? The pantheistic and vaguely political invocations presented in these manifestations seem at odds with the use of potent Christian traditions. A rabid cynic might claim that he empties dense and familiar emotionally and historically charged symbols of their original content to use them as a vehicle for a confused message of world peace. No doubt, given the powerful possibility of psychosomatic phenomena, this could occur unconsciously. But the fact remains that it is nearly impossible to locate Amiden’s experience as one that falls within the bounds of a single religious tradition. Moreover, his comments in the interview lead us to question whether his stigmatic-like experiences can communicate shared meanings for the purpose of reinforcing existing religious structures and reasserting eternal verities in everyday life, or if they are just confined to a fantastic version of everyday life. There is also the possibility that Amiden is an exemplar of a poststructural or postmodern movement that immanently unhinges long-standing beliefs and traditions, while still remaining sincere.
In his discussion of postmodernity, Gergen speaks of the (1991, 7) “plurality of voices vying for the right to reality.” Some visitors to Florence panic before a Raphael masterpiece; others go into a frenzy when confronted with a Caravaggio painting; still others collapse at the feet of Michelangelo’s statue of David. At least once a month, a foreign tourist is rushed to the psychiatric ward of Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, suffering from an acute mental dysfunction brought on by an encounter with the city’s art treasures (Kroker, Kroker, and Cook 1989, 150). Mother Ann, the founder of the Shakers, experienced an episode of stigmata when, during a religious ecstasy, blood allegedly seeped through the pores of her skin (Ratnoff 1969). In 1972 (as noted previously), a young Baptist girl was observed to manifest the stigmata (Early and Lifschutz 1974). In 1980, a medical journal told of a woman who manifested the stigmata while singing in a Pentecostal choir; she gave birth to a child who subsequently exhibited stigmata as well (Fisher and Kollar 1980). In 1993, Krippner and his group observed a man raised as a Muslim manifest stigmata-like phenomena. This crossing of denominational lines, for the sake of extraordinary occurrences, may be a characteristic of the postmodern age. It is surely no accident that Amiden’s unbridled association of Christian icons with the Brazilian national plight, an awareness of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, and the acknowledgment of Gandhi coalesce in a series of spiritual manifestations.
Postmodernism questions voices of authority as well as extant models of the human being. As Wilson (1989, 100) commented,
The truly significant feature is that the flesh really does change, in an extraordinarily dramatic way, in response to mental activity, and that the power of mind over matter is phenomenally more powerful than previously thought possible….
If the mind really can spontaneously produce wounds in this way, can it also be persuaded to do the reverse? Can it stem the bleeding of a hemophiliac, or shrink a malignant tumor?
Stigmata are not merely a relic of an era when superstition reigned. These phenomena may be reframed in terms of recent advances in mind-body medicine (e.g., Dienstfrey 1991) and applied psychophysiology (e.g., Wickramasekera 1995), providing clues for the alleviation of human suffering. And in the spirit of postmodernism, it is imperative to locate the mythic, structural, and narrative intersections that allow for humans to reinforce old meanings and generate new ones.